Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly has none of the usual interview-phobia associated with Hollywood’s finest; instead she bursts into the room full of life and greets Rotten Tomatoes UK with a beaming smile.
From her acting debut in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America right through to her latest role in Blood Diamond, for which we’re here to talk to her today, she’s proven herself capable of tackling just about any kind of material, from the light family fantasy of Labyrinth through the blockbusting fare of Hulk to challenging drama such as Requiem for a Dream.
As conflict-zone journalist Maddy Bowen in Blood Diamond, she’s sent into Africa’s shady diamond-smuggling underbelly to investigate the operations of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Danny Archer.
RT-UK: How are you enjoying London?
Jennifer Connelly: I love being in London. It’s always so nice…
RT-UK: And cold…
JC: It’s freezing! [Laughs]
RT-UK: A question for you to answer very carefully; did you draw on personal experience in your role as a ruthless journalist?
JC: [Laughs] No, you know I had meetings with women who had been in Sierra Leone at the time actually writing stories on conflict diamonds so what I did was very much informed by those meetings and those conversations. I thought they were fabulous; I loved them. I had enormous respect for their courage and tenacity and it was all for the right reasons.
RT-UK: I can’t imagine doing that job myself…
JC: It’s so remarkable what these people do. I was astounded by it and had the utmost respect for them. I really, really tried hard to make Maddy a faithful and respectful representation of the sort of woman that I met with.
RT-UK: Did you sense their frustration that they were putting these pieces together only to have them cut down or out of their respective broadcasts?
JC: Yeah, I heard stories like that and I also spoke to women who struggled with a similar sort of thing Maddy struggles with when she’s talking about feeling like she’s benefiting personally from someone else’s suffering and that ultimately, really, it’s not affecting that much change and it feels like exploitation which is what she’s striving to counteract. I had women speak to me about that sort of conflict as well.
RT-UK: What’s interesting about Maddy’s relationship with Danny – Leo’s character – is that there’s clearly something going on there but you never actually consummate the relationship you have which is somewhat untraditional these days…
JC: I liked it as well; I liked that the way it was written and it was interesting trying to find a realistic journey for them to take together. To find a place for them to get to together where one feels invested, you know, and it feels realistic that they’ve made an impact on each other but it doesn’t go so far that you go, “Come on, that’s impossible; how could people who start out so politically opposed wind up going that far.” So it was something we tried to be very careful with and Leo and I had a lot of conversations about just where to mark changes and how to try and make a shape for it. But I was really happy that, in the end, Ed felt quite strongly because we kept on thinking, “Oh God, we better wait for those rewrites. There’s going to be that sex scene on a beach or something!” [Laughs] But it never came, to Ed’s credit.
RT-UK: How did you get on with Leo on set?
JC: I had a wonderful experience working with him. We didn’t hang-out – we have such different personal lives and set-ups what with me with my family there and everything. We didn’t spend any time really aside from work. But he was one of the most generous actors that I’ve ever worked with; it was really a great experience for me. And I’m not just saying it, I mean literally we would have conversations after work or at lunch or in the trailer every morning, we were always talking about the scenes that we had to do and what we could bring to them and in what ways we needed help. It was very collaborative which is such a treat for me.
RT-UK: Changing tack slightly, I remember reading a story a while back about some incident at your hotel room while you were on location…
JC: [Laughs] We had baboons in our hotel room which was kind of fabulous; they raided the minibar! [Laughs] Literally, they did. They ate candy bars… We came back and they were bouncing on the bed leaving little footprints all over the couch!
RT-UK: I believe you suffered for your art in the making of this movie too…
JC: Yeah, I was wearing a neck brace for about six weeks. I got a blow to the head in the back of the car when the car is crashing through the jungle; just as it goes into the ditch. I got a concussion and a disc herniation in my next. It’s horrible. And I had to take the neck brace off for scenes and put it back on so it was difficult. Like that scene at the end on the phone was challenging because I was in a tonne of pain but didn’t want to take painkillers. When I first injured myself I took the painkillers and it was really disastrous – I really embarrassed myself thoroughly! It was horrible, I went to some group dinner and was just talking complete nonsense because I just didn’t take seriously the “don’t drink” instructions.
RT-UK: This didn’t coincide with the minibar raiding incident by any chance, did it?
JC: [Laughs] No, that was another time; I wasn’t making that up! But I had wonderful physical therapy on my neck and I’ve had subsequent scans and it’s fine.
RT-UK: Plus it’s a good story for interviews…
JC: [Laughs] Is it? Good to know! I’ll bring it up if no-one asks me!
RT-UK: Were you expecting the shoot to be this rough?
JC: No, I don’t really have many action sequences and there was very little to do, really. But it was fun. It was fun running through the jungle!
RT-UK: How did you juggle the work with your two kids in tow?
JC: Well they came with me. My husband Paul [actor Paul Bettany] and my younger son Stellan were there for most of the shoot. Stellan was there the whole time with me and Paul had Da Vinci Code out at that time so he left a few times to do some press but other than that he was there with us the whole time. And my older son, Kai, that was fairly complicated with his dad being in New York and school at his age now, he was there for six weeks in the middle. He stayed home for a month with his dad and then he came to us for about six weeks and went back for the last month which was ghastly. It was the longest time I’d ever spent away from him and I was really struggling with it. But it was wonderful to have him there for those six weeks.
RT-UK: Does being a mum make seeing what’s going on out there with child soldiers and orphanages even harder?
JC: I can’t imagine that it isn’t heartbreaking for anyone to look at those images. I think knowing that there are, they estimate, something like 300,000 children engaged in armed conflict around to world, to me that’s unconscionable. And I would imagine for anyone who knows those statistics it’s the same. It’s unfathomable and really horrendous and I don’t think one needs to be a parent to really feel how horrific that is.
RT-UK: Looking back over your career, there was a time when you weren’t getting the roles you’re getting now. Did you ever feel that the good work might never present itself again?
JC: Yeah and, you know, I’ll probably feel that way again given the way this business goes! [Laughs] But, yeah, absolutely I got to a point where I just didn’t like the movies that I was able to make and I started to think, “Oh God, do I really want to make a movie that I’m going to be embarrassed about?”
RT-UK: What changed?
JC: Who knows what changed. I did this film Requiem for a Dream which I think helped me a lot and that was a struggle to get – I think I auditioned three times for that job. I wanted to do something that I felt passionate about and it got to the stage where I didn’t want to work unless I felt really strongly about what I was going to do.
RT-UK: So what did your plan B look like?
JC: Honestly, I hadn’t really gotten that far… When I went to university the second time – because I went, left and then went back – I was studying Environmental Sciences as an Earth Systems major. But that was then, I don’t know about now…
RT-UK: Going back even further now – have you shown your kids Labyrinth yet?
JC: Actually, yes. Paul showed Stellan, our little one, Labyrinth, and unfortunately he really likes it! [Laughs] Unfortunately because now sometimes it’s playing in the house and I can’t bear to hear it! I can’t bear to see myself at that age! I know it’s a well-loved movie, but can you imagine having to see yourself when you’re thirteen or fourteen? I’m like, “Oh my God! Listen to my voice! Look at me, I’m a bratty little kid!”
But, yeah, Stellan really likes it. [Laughs] They had him doing this project in school – he’s at Nursery School. They’re studying owls, and I don’t know if you remember but David Bowie turns into an owl in the movie. So they were making owls and writing owl poems and his owl was named David Bowie! [Laughs] That was so funny!
RT-UK: Does Once Upon a Time in America seem like a distant memory now?
JC: Oh yeah, I was eleven when I made that film which, unfortunately, feels like a very long time ago! [Laughs] It’s a very adult movie which isn’t to say that I was an adult making it, I was a very lucky kid in a very grown-up fancy milieu that I wasn’t even aware of at the time really; the kind of film that it was. I thought, “Oh, I really love this guy with the octagonal-shaped glasses and he’s so nice to me and isn’t Italy great,” but looking back on it I realise it’s probably one of the best films – if not the best – that I’ve been involved with.
RT-UK: You’re working with Terry George soon on Reservation Road aren’t you?
JC: Yeah, we actually just finished a while ago. I haven’t seen it yet but it was a great experience. Terry was fantastic. Bless him, he did such a good job. It’ll be very interesting to see what he makes of it; it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done hands down. It just gutted me and about a week into I thought, “I cannot believe that I decided to do this film!” [Laughs] I play a woman who loses her son, who is my son’s age, and it was just horrific working on it. Terry George was so great because I was so emotional the whole time. There’s an accident that happens at the beginning of the film and pretty much everything that happens is the aftermath. He was so good at managing everyone’s moods and emotions, because literally they’d say, “OK, we’re going to shoot scenes in a different order today,” and I’d be crying and saying I couldn’t do that! I was on edge the whole time and he was just marvellous really.